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Nation

Obama swamped by court vacancies

| Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, 7:47 p.m.

WASHINGTON — It takes a calculator and perhaps the rigor of Sherlock Holmes to cut through the partisan rhetoric about President Obama's first-term record on judicial nominations. But the bottom line is clear enough.

There are more vacancies on the federal courts now than when Obama took office nearly four years ago. And he is the first president in generations to fail to put a nominee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the second most influential court in the land and traditionally a training ground for Supreme Court justices.

Obama has, of course, left his mark on the high court by nominating Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Their confirmations leave those two seats for decades in liberal hands and marked a historic diversification of the court.

But, depending on what the Senate does in these final days, Obama's record on the rest of the federal judiciary will show one more opening on the nation's powerful 13 courts of appeal than when he took office, and more than a dozen additional vacant district court judgeships.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., blames Senate Republicans for foot-dragging on nominees who he says are utterly uncontroversial.

“These delays mean that the Senate will, again, be needlessly forced to devote the first several months of next year confirming judges who could and should have been confirmed the previous year,” Leahy said this month.

He added that the increase in vacancies “is bad for our federal courts and for the American people, who depend on them for justice.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the committee's ranking Republican, responds that the Senate has confirmed at least as many as were approved during President George W. Bush's first term. “The continued complaints we hear about how unfairly this president has been treated are unfounded,” he said.

Russell Wheeler, a judicial scholar at the Brookings Institution, has taken a more detached look at the process. “There is so much propaganda out there,” Wheeler says. “It's almost as if they are speaking different languages.”

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